The modern day funeral…

Posted on August 26, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under Funeral Etiquette, funerals, memorial services
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Not so long ago it was customary to attend a funeral in a church, wear black, and pray for the soul of the departed. As we become more ethnically diverse and as the practice of formal religion declines, rituals to observe a person’s passing are changing. “The largely Christian population in the United States began declining between 2007 and 2014.  During that time the number of people who self-identified as Christian fell a full 8 percent.” (Pew Research)  Since then, the decline continues, while Eastern traditions and multi-faithed individuals increase. A growing number of people identify as multifaith, adhering to more than one religious tradition, such as a Buddhist-Christian. Death rituals of these individuals reflect the beliefs, ideas and elements of more than one tradition.

Expressions such as “Life Celebration” unheard of just 20 years ago, are now regularly used, but have no common meaning. A variety of rituals are listed in obituaries these days, namely, that there will be a memorial service, celebration of life, reception, or visitation with the family, and it will be taking place at a hall, church, restaurant, funeral home or other venue. The fact is that there is no universal structure for these and so it is impossible to know what to expect.

The motivations for gathering when a loved one has died have likewise shifted. In the past, funeral rituals focused on safe passage of the deceased to their new life.  While this may remain one of the objectives in some services, the emphasis has shifted to highlighting the deceased’s life accomplishments and comforting the survivors. The eulogy has become the centerpiece of many services rather than the prayers.  Rites for evangelical Christians still place a strong emphasis on Jesus’ gift of salvation to their loved one, while Buddhists and Hindus continue to emphasize the cycle of living and dying and living again.  Some mourners rebel against any mention of the imperfect nature of their loved one, opting for rituals that focus on heaven already gained. For atheists or those who wish to focus solely on the humanity of a person without spiritual mention, secular funerals have also become popular.

As we continue to shift from a strongly religious society to a spiritual and sometimes wholly secular one, we will continue to experience changes in how we memorialize and bury our dead. There are excellent resources online to acquaint people with rites of memorialization and burial. So if you are attending a Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic or other religious ritual, you can certainly find a website to familiarize yourself with the rite and what is expected of mourners.  For less traditional rituals bearing names like  “Memorial Service”, “Life Celebration” or “Remembrance Ritual”, the structure and expectations are as individual as the people planning them.

Here is a good resource to become acquainted with the different religions and their customs surrounding death and burial:

“The purpose of funeral rituals varies between religions and is dependent on time and place. Historically the purpose of most religious funerals was to aid the deceased in their passage to the next life, and this remains an important factor for many.  In more recent times, and in more secular funerals, the emphasis has shifted towards providing comfort and support for the bereaved.”

by Jennifer Uzell


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